Wednesday, April 23, 2008
I published the endorsement that appears below for Biden's Presidential candidacy back in January, the day before the Iowa primaries in fact. However, now that Barack Obama has chosen Senator Joe Biden for his Vice-Presidential running mate, I thought it worth re-printing. All of the personal and political virtues I then touted when Biden was running for the Presidency are as applicable and relevant now that he's become the Democrats Vice-Presidential nominee. He's an excellent choice; Kudos to Obama.
With tonight's Iowa caucuses commencing American Presidential primaries season, I'd like to interrupt, or rather to supplement, my baseball commentary with a plug for the candidate I consider best equipped to deliver the nation from its current malaise-- a malaise bred by a gratuitous, catastrophic war in Iraq and the dogmatic President whose cavalier arrogance, slipshod judgment, and criminal ignorance led us there.
That candidate is Joseph R. Biden, Jr., the senior Democratic Senator from Delaware. His candidacy at the moment is a quixotic one, I concede; Biden registers, on average, about 4% in the polls. However, Iowans cherish the leading role they play in the Presidential selection process and have a habit of defying pundits and subverting expectations. Republican Pat Robertson finished 2nd in the Iowa primaries in 1988, as did Democrat John Edwards in 2004. And finally, as every politican historian is fond of observing, an obscure one-term, Georgia governor emerged from nowhere in 1976 with a victory in the Iowa caucuses that catapulted him to the Presidency.
BIDEN THE MAN
Why Biden? Well, taking up the woman's movement old maxim that assumes the "personal is political," let's start with the Biden, the man.
Now, at one time in my life, election politics captured my imagination with something of the fervor only baseball, literature, and occasionally, the law, can today. As such, I've had the equivocal pleasure of becoming acquainted with my fair share of poltical candidates: Biden during his first Presidential election campaign in 1988; Bill Clinton, four years later, while working for his campaign during the Democrats nominating convention at Madison Square Garden and later in Pennsylvania during the general election cycle; and Al Gore, Jr, in 2000, providing legal counsel, albeit in a minor role, to his campaign's post-election challenge to Florida's results. (The latter, perhaps the more frustrating case I've ever been involved with as a lawyer and certainly, the most infuriating miscarriage of justice I've ever witnessed.) Finally, over the years, I've attended more political breakfasts, lunches, and dinner than I care to count. At which, many a Senate and gubenatorial candidates have shaken my hand with their right arm while endeavoring to pick my pocket with their left.
Yet in all this time, I've met precisely two candidates whose public demeanor, if not a facsimile of their private personality-- after all, whose is?-- impressed me as at least of reflection of it: Mario Cuomo and Joe Biden. Perhaps, out of principle, they disdain the artifice and dissimulation politics normally requires. Perhaps, they simply can't act. Whatever the reason, unlike with the ever protean Clintons, liberals one day, triangulators the next, with Biden (and Cuomo) you get what you vote for.
And when I vote for Joe Biden-- if his candidacy, that is, survives through the New York primary -- I, at least, will have the confidence of casting a ballot for a man I both like and admire.
Sure, Biden, on occasion, talks too much. But rarely, unlike his colleagues, does he say too little. Biden, in his volubility, is often trenchant, cogent, and erudite. And his candor, Biden is always seductive and endearing. Even when indiscrete, in fact, his glibness has the virtue of its sincerity and the extenuation that it's largely free of malice.
As for the personal qualities that inspire my admiration of the man. Well, Biden has suffered the personal tragedy of losing both a wife and daughter with more grace, resilience, and poise than we should expect of any man. Americans, it's true, too often exaggerate the relationship between domestic vritue and professional competence. That being said, how can one not admire a man, who at the age of 29, months after he wins his first Senate election, discovers a car accident has killed his wife and three-year-old daughter and nonetheless summons the strength and discipline not only to nurse his two critically injured sons back to health without ever neglecting his legislative responsibilities, but also exhibits the loyalty and devotion to commute 3-hrs back and forth to Washington every day to ensure he's home with them and the rest of his family every night for the rest of their lives.
BIDEN THE SENATOR
Biden's experience in public life commend his candidacy as well. Indeed, in a time when politicians imagine themselves qualified for the Presidency before they've completed a single-term in national office and/or hold out their last names as a Presidential credential, as though America were some kind of a aristocracy rather than a democracy, Joe Biden, US Senator for 35-years, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relation Committe, foreign policy expert and visionary, eminence grise of the Democratic party, and self-made man of a modest working-class origins provides a welcome and bracing relief.
Now, it's true that the importance of Presidential candidate's command of foreign affairs dwindles in times of peace and prosperity. Alas, 2008 isn't one of those historical moments. Not with Iraq confronting the U.S. with its most momentous foreign crisis perhaps since the Soviets installed missles in Cuba.
And no other candidates is more equipped to resolve the Iraq imbroglio than Joe Biden. Indeed, the confederal arrangement he proposed for Iraq over two years ago is perhaps America's last best hope for curtailing Iraq's civil war, restoring a viable state, establishing a functioning government, ejecting its foreign jihadis, and resurrecting Iraq's critical role as a buffer to Iran, a reliable source of oil, and a secular, moderate Arab bulwark in region inflamed by Islamic fundamentalism: all of which are indispensable to bringing U.S. troops home safely and quickly.
What's more, Biden recognizes that the U.S. has vital geo-political interests abroad, in the Middle East and elsewhere, and therfore never can retreat entirely from international engagement. However, he has never subscribed to the neocon's utopian delusion that American can transplant its pluralist democracy in Iraq or anywhere else, for that matter, and would pursue a course that restores realism, sanity, and restraint to our foreign policy without shriking from America's commitments, jeopardizing its interests, or surrendering its pivotal international leadership.
Finally, Joseph R. Biden, Jr., to my mind, is the only candidate with the intellectual gravity, moral authority, verbal facility, vision, expertise, and temperament to lead that fluid, constantly evolving, great democratic enterprise our Founding Fathers once called the "American Experiment."
Through 21 games this year, the Yankees have scored 94 runs, a total that places them 8th in the American League. Worse, 15 of them stem from a single game on April 16. Exclude their fifteen-run bender against the Red Sox and the Yankees have averaged less than 4 runs per game. Accordingly, if one is apportioning blame for the team's mediocrity, the lineup's paltry offensive output should bear its burden alongside Hughes, Kennedy, and Mussina.
Of course examining the precise proportion of each's contribution would require facility with mathematical derivatives beyond this writer's skill.
Then too there is what I call the Donne fallacy ("no man is an island"). That is, examing the effect of a team's pitching and hitting independently always distorts your analysis because on the field, the starting pitcher and his lineup inextricably influence each other. Treating pitching from hitting as separate spheres, then, doesn't truly capture the interactive system encompassing the field. For example, even the worst pitcher can quell a formidable lineup through 6 or 7 innings staked to a 7-run lead. Alternatively, even the best lineup will press, sabotaging its potential and defeating itself, mired in a 7-run hole.
Still, for the sake of argument, let's assume runs scored and runs allowed are genuinely independent variables. Applying the Jamesian Pythagorean theorem (Runs Scored^2 / Run Scored^2 + Runs Allowed^2), the Yankees' mound and plate performances translate into a 10-11 record through 21 games, an extrapolation very close to the reality: the Yankees presently stand at 11-10. So for argument's sake, assume the Yankees, actually, had scored more runs. At an additional run per game, the Yankees would have produced 115 runs, to date-- a number roughly equivalent to the Red Sox's current AL-league leading 119 runs scored. And 21 additional runs, according to the Jamesian Pythagorean theorem, would have resulted in two more wins or a record of 13-8 instead of 11-10.
Now, were the Yankees enjoying a .621 winning percentage, instead of playing .500 ball, Hank Steinbrenner might have had less reason to vent his frustration with the Yankees' current starting rotation yesterday. Then again, perhaps not. His acquiescence to Cashman's decision not to acquire Johan Santana probably will rankle him every time Hughes proves ineffective. And if I can't endorse Hank ranting in the press-- it certainly won't help Hughes any-- I certainly can empathize with his frustration. Santana would have alleviated much of the burden the under 24 yr olds must now bear themselves.
Still, young pitching is invariably erratic. It's not fair to punish Hughes and Kennedy, then, for Cashman's hubris. For the Yankees lineup of veterans and superstars, on the other hand, there is no excuse.
Of course taking the Yankee lineup to task indiscriminately obfuscates the problem as well. It's not the whole lineup, after all, that hasn't performed up to its ability and to fans' expectations. Rather, in team's overall offensive futility, a few hitters have distinguished themselves especially (Damon's recent surge excludes him from this ignominious company):
- Cano at .173/.212/.247, 1 HR and 5 RBIs
- Giambi at .120/.286/.340, 3HR and 7RBIs
What's interesting however is to observe the divergence in fan's reaction to each. Few revile Cano. Perhaps because they recall that Cano struggled in the beginning of last year as well. And he did; yet not nearly as badly as he has foundered this year. Through April of 2007, Cano also had only 1 HR and 8 RBIs but he otherwise was .270/.320/.337, numbers dramatically better than the .173/.212/.247 splits enumerated above.
The same fans that shrug off Cano, however, would as soon flog Giambi. In a recent visit to Pete Abraham's LoHud Blog, in fact, I discovered a consensus of otherwise astute contributors in favor of designating Giambi for assignment. Why the difference? Well, many, I suspect, deny Giambi the indulgence they extend Cano because of Giambi's age, bloated contract, and his evident defensive shortcomings. (The time his play robs fan favorite, Shelly Duncan, no doubt, fuels their ire as well.) Most of the clamor to cut Giambi nonetheless seems irrational. A reaction I can only attriubute to the lingering resentment his steroid use and injury-plagued tenure in Pinstripes still produces.
Whatever the reason, they're not alone. Even some of the more rational and objective voices have joined the chorus. The widely esteemed, Steven Lombardi, of "Was Watching," agrees and he has brought his stat book with him to lend their argument credibility: http://waswatching.com/2008/04/19/giambis-batting-skill-worthless-yanks-should-cut-him/ Lombardi compares Giambi's numbers against "finesse" and "power" pitchers, purports to show that Giambi can hit the former but not the latter, concludes that Giambi's skills have regressed, and argues the Yankees should cut him.I'm not convinced. I don't entirely accept the validity and reliability of the metric Lombardo employs. He cites Baseball Reference's taxonomy of finesse pitchers, defined as pitcher who strike out or walk less than 24% of batters faced, and power pitchers, those who strike out or walk more than 28% of the batters they face. The finesse/power metric, for example, classifies Chien-Ming Wang as a finesse pitcher by a considerable margin. Would Giambi really fare much better against Wang, a finesse pitcher, than Becket, a power pitcher, for example, against whom Giambi is 27 Plate Appearances is .236 with 2 HRs and 6 RBIs?
Anyway, I found a rebuttal that convinced me otherwise. The Replacement Level Yankees Weblog ran a convincing statistical analysis that attributes Giambi's woes, in part, to a streak of especially bad luck. "Is Giambi Cooked?" (April 20, 2008) http://www.replacementlevel.com/
The pieces authors compiled stats on (i) the number of balls Giambi has put in play per plate appearance over the last few years and a comparison of (ii) his walk to strikeout ratios. From the relative constancy in the latter they concluded that Giambi actually has not undergone a marked regression in his plate skills. From the former they deduced that Giambi's dreadful numbers thus far stem, in part, from a streak of woefully bad luck.
I PLEA FOR G
Of course, Replacement Level persuaded me and WasWatching didn't largely because the former's analysis conforms more closely to (i) what I've Been Watching and (ii) too acute a memory of 2005 and 2007.
In 2005, if you recall, Giambi just had returned from a nearly season long absence to which his pituitary tumor had relegated him. And after a month in which he'd hit .224/.395/.373 with 3 HRs and 6 RBIS, the Yankees wanted to send him to the minors. Meanwhile the hanging jury on talk radio wanted to lynch him from the highest tree. Fortunately, Torre's loyalty to Giambi didn't waver. And with a little patience and perspective, lo and behold, Giambi suddenly snapped out of his doldrums, and with a superb June and July, he ended the season hitting with impressive numbers .271/.440/.558, 32 HRs and 87 RBIs and won the Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Then too, last year, I still recall with indignation all the fans who had concluded Bobby Abreu was finished and were prepared to bury him alongside Giambi. In May 2007, Abreu hit .208/.267/.274 with 1 HR and 9 RBIs after an April in which he didn't fare much better. Still, by the end of the year, Abreu compiled stats close enough to his career averages .283 vs. .300/.369 vs. .408/.445 vs. .500 that it made all the brouhaha in April and May about Abreu's skill regression seem risible in perspective.
Quite simply, one month, perhaps even two, does not a season make.
To be sure, Giambi's proclivity to pull the ball and the defensive shift played against him have diminished his offensive proficiency-- he's not the Giambi of 2002-3 and never will be. While the Giambi who hits so effectively to left-field during Spring Training, regrettably, vanishes come April.
Nonetheless, I recall too many Giambi at-bats through the season's first 21 games (a mere 13% of the season), during the series at Fenway in particular, when he hit the ball hard, if right at a outfielder, and which afterward led me to believe the numbers lied. A subjective impression, I concede, but one which Replacement Level's statistical anaylsis would seem to reinforce
Accordingly, nothing would surprise me less than for Giambi to rebound in the months of May and June, when the Yankees play over 50% of their games at home, when the weather improves and the RF porch beckons-- nothing would surprise me less than to see Giambi trotting around the bases to the guilty roar of the amnesic and fickle mob.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
The fierce debate that has divided Yankees fans and the baseball cognoscenti who cover the team recalled to mind the chasm between the "nattering nabobs," liberal and conservative, who wanted to impeach Bill Clinton and the wide swath of the American public from whom the President's escapades evoked little more than a shrug.
Of course the gravity of their consequences couldn't differ more. Then again, to the Yankees franchise, perhaps they compare after all. In 2008, the Yankees Front-Office is unlikely to face a dilemma more momentous for their fate than whether to keep Joba Chamberlain in his current role as the Yankees redoubtable 8th inning set-up reliever or whether to return him to the starting pitcher he once was, the role in which he awed the Yankees' organization last year and rocketed through their farm system.
Almost the entirety of the reporters, columnists, radio hosts, and ex-athletes turned television pundits who cover the Yankees favor leaving Joba in his current role as an 8th inning setup reliever, at least for the 2008 season. To name just a few who advocate as much: WFAN's Pope Mike and The Idio-Savant, John Heyman, Sweeny Murti; the YES Network's and 1050 Radio's Michael Kay and David Cone, Newsday's Jim Baumbach, The Record's Bob Klapisch, and former baseball players ranging from Goose Gossage to John Kruk, Fernando Vina, Eric Young and the rest of the punditocracy Red Sox Reich's House Organ, ESPN, employs.
Their argument proceeds something like this. Baseball increasingly has become a sport of specialized roles. Organization confine starters to pitch counts and innings limits. The complete game has vanished. And a "quality" start now consists of little more than six innings pitched surrendering three or less runs. Meanwhile, closers rarely pitch more than the 9th inning and the rare out or two in the 8th.
As a consequence, the pivotal moment in most games occurs in the 6th, 7th, and 8th inning after the starter has exited but before the Sandman has entered. (Naturally, the experts don't adduce statistics to demonstrate this point. In the meantime, the fan awaits a Jamesian study that derives a metric that identifies the game's watershed inning.)
Indeed, the talent margin between a league's best team and its worst often hinges on its middle relief. Teams that can resort to dominant relievers in the 7th and 8th innings, typically, are the teams that play in October: e.g, in 2007, the Angels with Scott Shields and Justin Speier; the Indians, with Betancourt and Perez; the Red Sox, with Okajima; the Rockies, with Herges and Fuentes. Teams like the 2007, Devil Rays, Orioles, Rangers, and Tigers (without a healthy Zumaya) in contrast, lost innumerable games in the late innings precisely because they lacked one or more consistently effective relivers who could preserve leads late in games.
Enter Joba. In the expert's view, he delivers the shock before the Sandman registers the kill. Indeed, four of the six Yankees wins to date have administered the Joba-Sandman prescription for throttling opponents' late-inning rallies. Thus the nostalgia it evokes in the experts who never tire of hearkening to 1996 to remind us that the Yankees haven't possessed this formidable a late-inning tandem since Rivera and Wettleland (who they conveniently forget Yankees fans called Sweat Land that year.) But they have a point: middle relief, the 7th and 8th innings in particular, has been a Yankees' Achilles Heel since 2001 and the swan song of Nelson, Stanton, Mendoza.
Moving Joba into the starting rotation, in their view, then is suicidal. It leaves the Yankees with two equally unpalatable alternatives, the one more noxious than the other: either (i) assigning the 8th inning role to Farnsworth or Hawkins, two pitchers who in this still nascent season already have demonstrated they can't handle the role (Farnsworth of the 2.00+ WHIP and Hawkins of 15.75 ERA) or (ii) entrusting the job to Ohlendorf, Bruney, Albaledejo, Veras, or one of the many relievers untested in the role. Of course, before last year, Joba himself was untested in this role as well. Actually, Joba not only had not navigated the shoals of a precarious 8th inning lead before, he hadn't ever worked as a reliever. In fact, he hadn't ever pitched in the major league in any capacity, besides.
Accordingly, a little imagination or exercise of logic might have prompted the experts to wonder whether there isn't someone else in the Yankees' system poised to rehearse Joba's trajectory before they rendered their verdict that moving Joba was tantamount to a death-wish. Alas the experts never do. The reason is because the great majority of New York's baseball media -- writers like Ken Davidoff and Pete Abraham genuinely interested in minor league baseball are the exceptions that prove the rule-- don't bother to familiarize themselves with the Yankees (or the Mets, for that matter) farm systems.
People like Francesa, Russo, Kay, and many of the senior writers, know the names, perhaps, of a few choice prospects but little else beyond that. They couldn't distinguish Steven White from Steven Jackson. They can't identify the pitches in Alan Horne's repertoire. They couldn't name any of the Yankees' elite pitching prospects recovering from Tommy John surgery. More damaging still, they don't know whether if a prospect with the composure and stuff to parallel Joba's remarkable ascension in '07 currently exists in the Yankees system. But that hasn't deterred them, nonetheless, from rendering judgment with a vehemence in direct proportion to their ignorance.
THE AMATEUR SCHOLARS
Ask a Yankees' fan, on the other hand. Consult one of the many blogs operated or frequented by the Yankees zealots, like Lohud or NoMaas, and you not only can obtain a quasi-professional scouting report on the top 25 Yankees prospects but an authoritative projection of their likely success. Question them about Joba and how he most profits the '08 Yankees. And the answer you receive is almost univerally the diametric opposite. Joba belongs in the starting rotation as soon as his innings limits allow. That is, at the first juncture in the season Joba can pitch 6 innings a start every fifth day through the schedule's final game (and perhaps October) without exceeding 150 total innings (accumulated in both his roles), Joba should start.
To them, it's axiomatic. Why confine a pitcher to 3 - 5 outs per game as an 8th inning reliever when he can provide you 15 to 21 outs per game as a starter. Why waste a commodity so scarce and precious as a pitcher with a repertoire of 4 above-average pitches-- two superb pitches, his fastball and slider, a third very good pitch, his curve, and a fourth pitch, his changeup, that's above average-- when the Yankees can draw from the surplus of hard-throwing relievers with which the organization abounds to replace Chamberlain.
For the setup role, the Yankees could call upon Ohlendorf or Bruney from the current major league roster, or Mark Melancon, Humberto Sanchez, Alan Horne, Jeff Marquez, or Jose Veras anyone of whom has at least a dominating fastball and another plus pitch besides. Only Joba however has four plus pitches. What's more when the Yankees need to turn to a sixth starter, as they will at some point, because of injuries or inning caps, they have no one to throw every fifth day who can duplicate Joba's talent, no other pitcher with the potential to develop into the staff's ace or to join Wang in that role. To match Beckett-Buchholz, Halliday-Burnett, King Felix-Bedard, or Sabathia-Carmona, the Yankees have one option and only one, Wang-Joba.
The precedent for transforming Joba from the bullpen to the rotation mid-season is, of course, Johan Santana's similar trajectory in 2003, as Joel Sherman reported last Sunday in The New York Post ("Jo-Joba's Witness," April 6, 2008) Through July 11, 2003, Santana pitched in the Twins bullpen, accumulating 66 innings. From July 11, onward, Santana started. Over those 90.3 innings as a starter, Santana went 8-2 and catapulted the Twins from a 44-46 to AL Central Division Title, with Santana recording the only Twins win in the 2003 ALDS against the Yankees.
JOBA: WARP SPEED
One way to quantify this potential impact is by examining Joba's likely contribution in each role through through the prism of WARP or (Wins Over Replacement Player), a statistic Pecota and Baseball Prospectus utilized to measure a player's contribution to his team.
Assume Joba could throw approximately 150 innings this year in a mixed role of starter and reliever and approximately 70 innings in his role as set-up man, about the league average for a effective set-up man or closer on a winning team. Okajima threw 70 inning for the Red Sox in 2007; Scott Shields, 77 innings for the Angels; Casey Janssen, 72.7 for the Blue Jays; Rafael Betancourt, 79.3 innings for the Indians. (The median number Mariano Rivera has pitched the last four seasons is 75 innings)
The mixed role would confine Joba to throw approximately 110 innings as a starter, about 20-30 innings in the bullpen and 20-30 innings in the minors while they extend his arm.
At their best a dominating set-up man contributes under a 4.0 WARP. In 2007, Okajima, Shields, and Janssen amassed the following stats:
- Betancourt-- 79.2 IPs, 1.48 ERA = 4.0 WARP
- Okajima-- 69.0 IPs, 2.22 ERA = 3.3 WARP
- Janssen-- 72.7 IPs, 2.35 ERA = 3.1 WARP
- Shields -- 77 IPs, 3.86 ERA = 2.9 WARP
Now compare the difference to a starting pitcher, even one who throws half a season. The sample size for comparison is small obviously because few starters pitch less than 100 innings over a season. But in 2007, Jessie Litsch a rookie starter for the Toronto Blue Jays, threw 111 innings, about what the Yankees could expect of Joba once they transform him into a starter.
- Jessie Litsch-- 111 IPs, 7-9, 4.49 ERA = 3.5 WARP
The ramifications of the above comparison are momentous. A mediocre starting pitcher, in just half a season, contributes about the same number of wins over a replacement player as some of the league's best set-up men over a season's entirety. If Joba pitches slightly better than Jessie Litsch did in 2007-- and there is great reason to expect his totals as a starter would excel Litsch-- he would contribute about as much to the Yankees success in 2008 than if he duplicated Rafael Betancourt's success last year as the AL's best set-up man.
Or consider Joba's likely WARP if his statistics as a starter parallel the dominance he's demonstrated as a reliever. Witness the impact in 2006 of Jered Weaver for the Anaheim Angels.
- 2006- Jered Weaver, 123 innings, 11-2, 2.35 ERA = 5.9 WARP
Compare Weaver's WARP to the Angel's set-up man Scot Shield's WARP in the very same year.
- 2006- Scot Shields, 87.7 IPs, 1.07 WHIP, 2.87 ERA = 4.9 WARP
The statistics would seem to bear out the Yankees' fan's contention that even the best set-up man contributes less to a team's success over the duration of an entire season than an above average starting pitcher will through one-half a season. A verity that the salary differences between dominant set-up men and even mediocre starter reflects.
The question is whether the Yankees Front-Office, when deciding Joba's fate, will ignore the onslaught of "expert" opinion and base their decision instead on the layman's impassioned reason.
Saturday, April 5, 2008
I will be covering the New York Yankees all season for Mark Rosenman's Sportstalkny.
The show streams live at 9:00pm every Wednesday night at the above link. In the first hour, Mark and AJ Carter conduct a very professional, wide ranging and in-depth interview of a author about his recent book- this week they interview former Yankee Jim Bouton, author of the notorious BALL FOUR and Phil Mushnick, The New York Post's Sports Media Critic and scourge of WFAN's Pope Mike and The Idio-savant.
Mark, typically, fields calls from, or streams live webcasts of, the New York beat writers in the 10:00pm hour and usually features mine on the Yankees sometime between 10:30pm and 11:00pm. The show also utilizes an interactive chat which enables the viewer to ask the host questions.
In the meantime, feel free to E-mail me or post questions and/or subjects you'd like me to address.